“…[F]owlers originated among Europe’s aristocracy as a sporting weapon, but became a necessary tool for survival in the American wilderness.”
— Tom Grinslade Eighteenth Century American Fowlers—The First Guns Made In America
“I like big butts and I cannot lie…”
— Sir Mix-A-Lot
The most significant firearm on the early Colonial Frontier was not the rifle (not by a long shot), nor the military musket. Trade fusils and long-barreled, large-bore doglock or flintlock fowlers were the workhorses of the era. The latter piece is the focus of this essay.
Fowling pieces are considered the first firearms actually manufactured in America. They were versatile, capable of taking any type of game for the table and suitable for defense or military action in a pinch. In fact, many a militiaman turned out in the American Revolution armed with a fowler. The fowler was typically very long — a 48 inch barrel was common, and some were much longer. That allowed for a full burn on a slow charge and, purportedly at least, served to keep patterns tight.
Tom Grinslade, the expert in the field and author of Eighteenth Century American Fowlers—The First Guns Made In America notes that:
In the seventeenth century very long guns were developed in the Netherlands for hunting waterfowl in rivers and marshes. Swans and geese were often found in marshes and along the shore of the Zuiderzee. In “July and August when the birds molted and were thus unable to fly, they would be driven together by boats, after which a mass-killing took place.” When the Dutch immigrated to America it was natural for them to bring their long waterfowlers with them.
Makers quickly developed distinctive regional styles. The Dutch style heavily influenced the Hudson Valley Fowler.
Hudson Valley fowlers have always been highly prized for the attractive carving of their stocks, engraving on the brass hardware, and dramatic overall length. Their Dutch origins in America began with Henry Hudson’s early trip up an uncharted river in search of a new route to China. In September of 1609, he sailed the The Half Moon on a strange estuary later to bear his name and this exploration was the beginning of the Dutch influence in America. A merchant company, the Dutch West India Company founded a colony at New Netherlands (New York) in 1609. In 1664, the Dutch lost political control of the New Netherlands to England, but their cultural domination continued for many years. In rural areas and in towns such as Albany, the Dutch language was spoken well into the nineteenth century, surviving partly through its use in the Dutch Reformed Church. The Dutch presence along the Hudson River was manifested in architecture, art, furniture, style of living, and of course, in the Hudson Valley fowler derived from earlier Dutch guns.
Fowlers generally tended to have big butts — wide and thick and heavy — which helped to balance out the exceedingly long barrel. An exaggerated butt style developed in New England — The Club Butt Fowler.
Club butt fowlers have a distinctively shaped stock and are aptly named for the unusually large section at the butt. The heavy convex form of the underside of the stock is traceable to early European arms.(8) This style is seen on military matchlock guns preceding the flintlock era as viewed on the Austrian musket, (model of 1657) Figure 5. The oddly bowed contour of American club butt fowlers was derived from the design of the European weapons. Imports with club butt stocks from England, Liege, and France served as patterns for versions, which were mostly indigenous to eastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Some collectors call them “Marshfield” fowlers attributing their origins to an area around Marshfield, south of Boston, near Plymouth, Massachusetts. Fowlers of this form were produced over a long period of time, from the last quarter of the seventeenth century until early in the nineteenth century. There were fowling pieces made late in the eighteenth century with post-Revolutionary War era British Brown Bess flintlocks as well as an occasional very late club butt fowler originally manufactured with a percussion lock.
A contemporary maker named Todd Bitler has produced a very handsome copy of a 1710 Club Butt Fowler with a couple of distinctive features, including double set triggers and a rear sight, which is not commonly found on a smoothbore.
Bitler notes that the fowler was a popular firearm in the Indian trade — an upgrade from the common trade gun:
The specific features of a Fowler that made it a favorite to the Indians included better quality locks, barrels, stock wood and fancier brass mountings than any of the trade gun available. It was said that an Indian would trade twice the amount of furs to acquire a Fowler than a trade gun. The Club Butt Fowler was used daily by the Indians as these guns were well-suited to their needs so much so that the barrels became thin and worn and sometimes even fractured. When this occurred, the barrels were often cut back and shortened to make them useful again.
The fowling piece would commonly be loaded with what was known as “swan shot,” which is about equivalent to No. 4 Buckshot (not No. 4 birdshot). That’s a pellet size of .24 inches. A handful of that size shot backed by a stout powder charge was big medicine, and not just for swans. It made the fowler an effective combat weapon, despite its unwieldy length and inability to mount a bayonet (though some had stocks cut back and a lug brazed onto the barrel to accommodate a pig sticker).
New England Rangers from the 17th Century on up to the Revolutionary War would have commonly carried a Club Butt Fowler as their primary weapon.
Sculptor David Lemon depicts Captain John Lovell, who was killed in an epic firefight with the Abenaki in what is now Maine in 1725, armed with a Club Butt Fowler.
Now, it must be said that some people find the Club Butt Fowler, well… butt-ugly. I do not share this view. I’m with the rapper on this one, I cannot lie.